Enter São Paulo: The Real Concrete Jungle

After being the last one on the plane – I was hanging on to every inch of news about the looming end of the US Government shut down – and settling down for a long overnight flight, I finally touched down at Guarulhos International Airport just as dawn was creeping over the horizon and into São Paulo. After disembarking, collecting my baggage, and passing through Brazilian customs with no hassles, I wandered through the terminal in a groggy daze, still feeling the effects of the sleeping pills I’d taken during the flight. It was only really sinking in that I currently had a handful of questions and problems, and not a whole lot of answers or solutions.

Firstly, I had been a little terrified at the thought of coming to Brazil at all. I’d heard horror stories of people being mugged at gun point on the beach in Rio, although that wasn’t going to be much of problem for me if I couldn’t even find my way out of the fresh hell that is a foreign airport. That was another thing I had to get used to again – I was in a non-English speaking country and would soon learn that – unlike Europe – it wasn’t even that common and a second language, with many people only speaking Portuguese. My phone was also running low on battery, and I was unable to find any stray power outlets in the terminal, so I felt like I was walking around with a ticking time bomb that would eventually leave me completely stranded as soon as that percentage hit zero. There didn’t appear to be any readily available (read: free) wifi in the airport anyway, so it was looking more and more like I was going to do this the old fashioned way. I had spoken to Fausto a couple of times on Facebook, and while they had been brief, he had provided me with the essential details such as his phone number and address. He’d also told me he would have to go to work the morning of my arrival for an important presentation, so he might not be there when I arrived. My phone was having troubles making regular texts or calls, so I really had no way of contacting him, so I just had to set out for his apartment and hope for the best.

Fausto had warned me that the only way to get to his place from the airport was to get a cab. I’d been skeptical at first, being a traveller who is always willing to brave the public transport to save a few dollars, but what I had failed to realise is that the reason there is no public transport from the airport is because the international airport isn’t even in São Paulo. I thought Guarulhos was just the name of the airport, but it turns out that it was actually the neighbouring city, and the drive to São Paulo would take the better part of an hour. Luckily taxis – and basically everything, comparatively – are pretty cheap in São Paulo, so once I found out where to catch a legitimate taxi (I’d also been scared with rumours of illegal taxis that either charge way too much or simply rob you during the course of your trip) I jumped in, showed the driver the written address, and enjoyed the ride as I was driven through the lifting fog and into the metropolis.

***

I had met Fausto previously in my journey, during my brief stint in Barcelona, where I had joined him and his travel companions for a swim in their gorgeous hotel pool. It wasn’t the first time that someone I had met earlier on my travels had provided me with a place to stay: I’d only met Rich in Bangkok when I met up with her in Barcelona, and Giles let me live in his home in London without him for two weeks despite having only met him briefly in Berlin. But I’d stayed in touch with them more than I had with Fausto, and I was afraid it might be awkward due to the fact I had practically invited myself to come and stay with him (people always say “Sure, come and visit me!” but how many of them actually mean it?). When I finally arrived at his apartment, I received a pretty good impression of what a lot of the homes in Brazil, or at least São Paulo, were like. Before me loomed a beautiful, sleek, modern looking condo, surrounded by ferns, palms and other tropical plants to create a well-kept garden. However, before all that was a huge metal fence that covered the whole side of the property that faced out into the street. A quick glance each way down the road showed me that this was standard practice for many of the more affluent-looking residencies in the area. After paying the taxi and watching it drive off down the road, I approached the gates and was immediately greeted by the security guard. He asked me something in Portuguese, and instead I showed him Fausto’s written address, which also had his name.

“Ahh, Mr. Fausto!” he said, and I breathed a sigh of relief, his recognition indicating that at the very least I had made it to the right place. But the guards face showed a look of concern, and when he said something to me. I recognised a few key words, in particular “trabalho”. It sounded very similar to “trabajo”, the Spanish word for ‘work’, and I knew enough Spanish to make meaning out of the madness. Fausto was obviously at work, and while the guard didn’t seem to doubt my legitimacy as a guest of Fausto’s, he managed to communicate in his extremely basic English that he had no key. I pulled out my phone – wondering if it was simply going to be a long morning of waiting in a lobby – to discover that I had received some text messages. From Fausto! After quickly reading over them, I had to convince the security guard to take me up to Fausto’s apartment. He shrugged, but escorted me upstairs anyway, and in a few minutes we were both standing in front of his apartment door. He kept muttering away in Portuguese, but I got down on my hands and knees and put my fingers along the tiny gap between the bottom of the door and the floor. After a few moments of sliding my fingers along the bottom of the door, I found what I was looking for – a piece of sticky tape. I gently peeled it off and it came away easily, and I discovered what appeared to be a piece of dental floss stuck to the tape. And when I pulled on that dental floss, sure enough the key tied to the end of it slid through the gap and out onto the floor. The security guard cried out in amazement, and I held up the key, smiled, and gave him a thumbs up. He stayed with me to make sure the key worked, and then left me alone to discover Fausto’s apartment.

The view from Fausto's apartment.

The view from Fausto’s apartment.

Fausto lived in a beautiful apartment that looked out over São Paulo. He had left a clean towel out for me so that I could have a shower, and I ended up taking a nap on the couch and letting the sleeping pills wear off while I waited for him to get home. Any fears I had of potential awkwardness evaporated as soon as he arrived home – we was as warm, friendly and charismatic as he had been when we’d first met in the under-crowded Barcelona nightclub, and in no time we were catching up as I was telling him the long story about my missed flight and how I had ended up in Brazil. Last time I’d seen him, South America hadn’t been on my travel plans, so he confessed he’d been a little surprised to hear from me.
“But still, it was a pleasant surprise! I’m glad you finally get to see Brazil now,” he said with a smile. “I actually just came to check up on you after my presentation was finished. I’ll have to go back to work this afternoon, but if you like we can go grab some lunch now?” All I’d had for nearly 24 hours was plane food, so lunch sounded amazing.

When we got down to the street, Fausto ran me by some of the basics about Paulistano life. “There’s public transport, but it’s not that reliable and doesn’t really reach a lot of places. Taxi’s are definitely the way to get around, they’re everywhere and they’re not that expensive.”
“What about walking? Are the streets dangerous?” I wasn’t a fan of paying for cabs, but I guess it was a matter of safety first. Fausto pursed his lips in thought, unsure of how to answer.
“Well, it’s not really dangerous,” he said, “but it’s not the safest place in the world. You just need to be alert.” He shrugged his shoulders with a laugh. “But then you could say the same thing about some parts of New York, right? So who knows.” I guess he had a point, although New York did have an incredibly comprehensive public transport network for a city it’s size. Having just spent such a long time in the Big Apple, during my time in São Paulo I found myself inevitably comparing and contrasting the two cities in various ways.

***

I took the days in São Paulo relatively easy – I hadn’t done an awful lot of planning, so when Fausto returned to work on that first day I headed home to consult a few maps and read up on the local attractions and sights. Fausto lived in an area called Vila Olímpia, which was quite close to what he had described as “the Central Park of São Paulo” (again with the NYC references), Parque do Ibirapuera. Pleased to discover something that was within a comfortable walking distance, I set off one afternoon to check it out. Ibirapuera Park is the largest in the city, although it’s nowhere near as large as Central Park, but as I walked through the streets of São Paulo, the thing that struck me most was how green and leafy the city was. I remember having similar thoughts about Singapore earlier in the year, with trees growing peacefully alongside big shiny malls, but São Paulo took it to the next level. Trees erupted along the edges of the road and stretched out their canopies over the streets, and it was enough to momentarily distract you from the fact you were in a huge city and lose yourself in the surrounding nature. The term ‘concrete jungle’ is so often used to describe cities like New York which, save a handful of dedicated park, are largely void of greenery. I feel as though São Paulo interpreted the term in a much more literal sense, combining equal parts of both concrete and jungle to create a truly unique atmosphere that I had never encounter before, and am yet to experience since.

Street art.

Street art.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

When I eventually reached Ibirapuera Park, the greenery took a chokehold on the concrete and exploded into a complete rainforest. I wandered aimlessly along the paths, getting lost amongst the nature and enjoying the slow pace of life away from the city. In the centre of the park the sounds of traffic had almost completely faded away, and it weren’t for the paved path under my feet I could have sworn I was actually in a remote rainforest. When I finally emerged from the denser forest of the park and into the clearings, Lago das Gaças – the huge lake in the northern end of the park – provided the perfect setting for some photographs of the city skyline looming on the horizon.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

I found the park so beautiful and soothing that I ended up going back several times. The rainy season was well underway, and one afternoon I even walked around in the rain and enjoyed the relatively empty scenery. The park is also home to the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, which had a free exhibition that I briefly visited, as well as a range of other interesting structures and sculptures.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

Empty park on a rainy day.

Empty park on a rainy day.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the 'Oca', or 'hut'.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the ‘Oca’, or ‘hut’.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

Park

Park Ibirapuera.

***

When I wasn’t checking out the parks and exploring the concrete jungle, I took a trip up to Avenida Paulista, what Fausto described as the major downtown and shopping area, or “São Paulo’s equivalent to 5th Avenue”. Determined to not spend money on taxis when it could be helped, I ended up walking the whole way. It was a great way to see more of the city, but in the end there wasn’t as much to do in downtown São Paulo during the day, since I wasn’t exactly on a budget that allowed for afternoons of shopping. And still, I couldn’t help but be drawn away from the streets of the city into the greener pastures that lay sprinkled in between the skyscrapers. I discovered a few little extra bits and pieces that I wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for all that aimless wandering, so in the end it was definitely worth it.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

I also spent a long portion of my days in São Paulo just relaxing, whether it was in a nearby café or Fausto’s apartment, writing my blog and just enjoying the warm, tropical weather. I would hear much of the comparison between between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo during my time in Brazil, and the debate reminded me of my own hometown of Sydney and the comparisons to Melbourne. Both Rio and Sydney have the advantage of natural beauty and being close to a handful of beautiful beaches, so their relative competitors attempt to make up for their lack of inherent beauty with lots of cultural activities and artistic pursuits. With this in mind, I was assured that São Paulo becomes a much more interesting city at night, so I was happy to siesta the afternoons away in preparation for the coming evenings…

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Travelling North: Canada, Here We Come

After arriving back in New York City, I only had a few days before I was setting off in another direction to visit another city, this time even another country. I had to visit the Brazilian Consulate to pick up my passport – I had felt very naked being in a foreign country without it, but I hadn’t really had much of a choice – and sure enough my brand new Brazilian was now affixed to one of the previously pages. On long flights or train journeys I often amused myself by flipping through the pages, counting the various stamps and visas that I had accumulated over the course of the year, and even some from previous years, remembering all the places I’d been to and the stories and memories that went with them. But my Brazilian visa would have to wait, because I had another international trip planned before I boarded that plane to São Paulo. Next stop was to the northern border and onwards to Canada!

But I did have a few days in New York to chill out with Melissa for a little while, do my laundry and prepare myself for the next trip, and explore a little more of the city. Melissa ended up having a family emergency that took her back to New Jersey for most of the time I was around, so I set out alone one afternoon to discover a huge street festival that was celebrating the Feast of San Gennaro, a religious commemoration to the Patron Saint of Naples that has evolved into what is essentially a huge Italian food festival in Little Italy in southern Manhattan, and a celebration of and for all the Italian-American immigrants. There were street vendors congregated for miles along Mulberry Street selling all kinds of food, mostly of the Italian cuisine like pasta, lasagne and sausages, as well as drinks like coffee, sodas, beers, wine and cocktails, and other stores offering souvenirs, trinkets and games. The festival stretched on seemingly forever, and in the end I stopped and grabbed some lasagne as I walked through the scores of other tourists that had flooded the street. My only regret is that I didn’t have a bigger stomach, and a bigger budget, to try all of the amazing food that I saw and smelt.

Tourists flooded the street festival of San Gennaro.

Tourists flooded the street festival for San Gennaro.

The festival stretches on for dozens of blocks, with road closures so it could open up into one huge event.

The festival stretches on for dozens of blocks, with road closures so it could open up into one huge event.

***

Only a few days later it was time to head to Penn Station on the east side of Manhattan, where a train would be taking me north to Canada. By this stage of my time in New York I was having friendly conversations with all the doormen in Melissa’s building, since I had got to know them all so well with my frequent coming and going during the last month – except for one of them, who still gave me a sinister look and asked “May I help you?” every time I passed him, despite it being quite obvious I’d been crashing there for the past few weeks. Thankfully, the only interrogations I would be subject to for the next ten days would be border crossings between the United States and Canada. I had decided to get a train because it was a cheaper than flying, it was less stressful to get to the train station than it was to get to the airport, and because if I was perfectly honest, I was beginning to miss the sensation of good old fashioned train journey through the countryside – one of the things I’ll always treasure about my journey around Europe. Granted, at almost 11 hours it was the longest single train trip I’d made so far – with the exception of the Trans-Siberian, of course, and perhaps the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona – but it was made better by a substantially more comfortable seat and a fully functional dining car with a range of greasy foods that were probably overpriced for what they were but tasted so satisfying that I didn’t really care. I watched the countryside of upstate New York fly by through the window, and I passed the time writing my blog and reading my book. The woman in the seat next to me didn’t appear to speak much English, or if she did she – as I would soon learn most French-Canadians do – chose to pretend she didn’t, so I didn’t have much in the way of conversation.

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

The border guards were stern but still friendly. When they flipped through my passport and saw the array of stamps and visas, it was clear that I was a seasoned traveller and they didn’t second guess any of my assertions I was just meeting friends in Canada. We had left Penn Station a little after 8 o’clock that morning, but the sun was already setting on the city of Montreal by the time I disembarked from the train and made it out into the street. When I went to an ATM to withdraw some Canadian dollars, I was reminded that I was no longer in an English speaking country – or at least, a non-English speaking province of the country. There was some English, but all the signs and notices were primarily in French. It threw me off a little, after recently spending so much time in the UK and US, but I recognised enough of the words from my time in Paris, as well as through basic linguistic knowledge, to navigate my way through the metro and to the hostel I was staying at that evening, and where I was due to meet my friend Stuart. I had met Stuart several years ago when we had both been studying in Sydney, where Stuart was an international student rather than an exchange student, so we’d had several years of classes together instead of just one semester. He moved back home to Calgary, on the other side of Canada, but agreed that he could take a holiday himself and meet me in Montreal.
“I’d love to hang out, and Montreal sounds great!” he’d said to me when I’d initially proposed the idea. “Anyway, you wouldn’t want to come to Calgary, believe me. Montreal – let’s do it!”

***

After arriving into Montreal relatively late, Stuart and I went out to have a quick dinner and then spent the evening in our hostel, catching up between ourselves and chatting with some of the other people in our hostel. Originally we had planned to stay with Stuart’s cousin in Montreal, but when those plans fell through we’d had to make some hostel reservations. It was kind of nice, to be honest, to jump back into the hostel culture after spending so long staying with friends and Couchsurfing – if you don’t count the brief stint in Ireland (I don’t, really, considering how little time I spent and how few nights I slept actually there), I hadn’t properly staying in a hostel since I was in Madrid! Although the place we stayed at was more of a house that had been converted into a hostel by putting a large number of bunk beds in a few of the rooms. It was a little bit chaotic, and a few of the people seemed like they had been living there for months from the way they had settled in, but on the whole we were surrounded by other friendly travellers.

On our first morning we decided to get most of our sightseeing out of the way, although to be honest there aren’t a great deal of iconic tourist attractions in Montreal. Nevertheless, Stuart had a list of buildings that his mother had written him of places that we should see, so we went off into the crisp morning air and flawless sunshine to check off the sightseeing list. The French influence on the province of Quebec and particularly Montreal were noticeable in highlights such as their own Notre Dame Basilica, as well as all the streets being named in French. It was a little like being back in Paris, except… not.

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

Monument à Maisonneuve, in the middle of Place d'Armes, just across from the Basilica.

Monument à Maisonneuve, in the middle of Place d’Armes, just across from the Basilica.

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

All up it was a lot of walking around the Old Town of Montreal, so it took us most of the morning. I was warned it would be a little cold this far north – by New Yorkers, at least – but the walking combined with the strong sun meant that we were pretty hot and sweaty towards the end of our sightseeing tour. We also visited a tiny free museum that we stumbled across that was all about the history of maple syrup – Canadians take that stuff very seriously. And of course, our stroll around Montreal would not have been complete without a final destination of the Montreal ‘Gay Village’ for what we believed to be some hard earned beers.

I thought it was just a cute nickname, but the gay area is literally called 'The Village'.

I thought it was just a cute nickname, but the gay area is literally called ‘The Village’.

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

Reflections on Europe

I’ve written reflective posts about the previous journeys that comprise my round the world tour, for both South-East Asia and the Trans-Siberian Railway, but I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss as to how I am supposed to recap my entire travels through Europe in a single post. The journey was twice as long as any of the other legs of the tour so far, and it’s taken me so long to chronicle the whole thing that I’ve since found myself returning home and then moving back to live in Europe before I’d even finished! But my time spent on the continent was a very big influence on me – I mean, I moved here – so I feel it is important to reflect on some of the lessons I learnt, the surprises I discovered, the cultures I clashed with and the memories I made…

***

Stockholm.

Stockholm.

Copenhagen.

Copenhagen.

The most noticeable thing about Europe for me, as a traveller, was the stark contrast in culture between the dozens of different countries that were all relatively close to one another. European cities mostly all seem to have this inherent charm about them – something that I suppose comes from never having lived in Europe – but beyond that every country had its own kind of culture that rendered it distinct from its neighbours. While I don’t want to rely too heavily on stereotypes, I often found that a lot of aspects about each country or city – the language, the cuisine, the friendliness of the people, their favourite pass times, their daily routines – were surprisingly congruent with most of my expectations. The French guys loved huge brunches full of gourmet food and lazy afternoons of drinking, with every type of wine imaginable readily on hand, yet they blew the preconceptions of rude, arrogant Parisians right out of the water. The Danish were friendly and soft-spoken people who rode their bikes everywhere and were always so proud of their idyllic little country, but were never, ever ones to brag. The Spaniards lived up the expectations of their siesta culture, all but disappearing during the day, only to reemerge in the early hours of the morning, with fire in their hearts, drinks in their hands and dancing shoes on their feet. The Germans drank beer like it was water – since half the time it cost less anyway – and in Berlin everyone from the artists to even the politicians seemed to wake up at 2pm. The Austrians were friendly and accommodating, though they resented that the Germans usually didn’t appreciate the linguistic differences between the Austrian German and their own. The Swiss seemed so content in their high quality of life that everyone was so happy, and you could completely understand how they have come to be considered such a neutral player. The Italians were late for everything, and nothing could be cooked as well as their grandmothers recipe. The Czech men thought their beer was better than the Germans, but they were happy to remain less renowned and keep to themselves with their gorgeous fairytale cities like Prague. The Dutch were loud and friendly, and also rode their bikes everywhere, the English were drinking tea whenever they weren’t drinking alcohol, and the Irish were just perpetually drunk.

Paris.

Paris.

Wait, what did I say about not using stereotypes?

But really, the actual proximity of all these countries and cities is really quite astounding for someone who comes from Australia. I could jump on a train for several hours and I would suddenly be in another capital city of another country, where they speak another language and use a different currency. All within the space of a continent that could practically fit inside the landmass that is my home country. That all these places could be so physically close but so culturally distant is still, and probably always will be, the thing I found the most fascinating about Europe.

Barcelona.

Barcelona.

Madrid.

Madrid.

***

Currency within Europe is also an interesting consideration. Despite most of the continent being economically unified under the euro, I still encountered a number of other countries that were yet to make the switch, with many of them seeing no reason to change any time in the near future. Denmark have the Krone, Sweden have the Krona, Switzerland still uses their Francs and the Czech Republic currency is the Koruna, and of course Britain has hung onto the Pound Sterling. There was some places such as major travel terminals, on trains, and on the ferries between Finland and Sweden and Wales and Ireland, that would accept both euros and a second currency, but generally speaking you had to have the right currency for the country you were in, which meant withdrawing new money in each of those countries – there was no point exchanging the euros since I was inevitably heading back to a country where I could spend them, so I just had to hang onto them – and then making sure I exchanged them back into euros before leaving that country, lest I was stuck with handfuls of coins that weren’t able to be spent or exchanged in any other country. All I can say is that I was glad to be doing my Eurotrip in the time of the euro, and not back in the day were every country had their own currency. I would have had to withdraw cash at a lot more ATMs, and do a hell of a lot more conversions in my head.

Rome.

Rome.

Zürich.

Zürich.

***

Something else about Europe that I really took a liking to was the buildings and architecture. Not just the famous sights and structures that I saw during my trip, but even things as simple as the houses on the street. While it was crazy to consider the fact that I could walk down a street in Rome and just casually pass the Pantheon, a building over 3000 years old that has been in place longer than any of the buildings in Australia, I also loved the styles of houses and apartments in places like Paris, the Netherlands, and even the outer German suburbs on the outskirts of Berlin had some adorable little homes that looked like something about of a storybook. But I suppose with the older buildings comes a real sense of history – just knowing how long some of these buildings had been there gave them the ability to appear classical and somehow timeless in my mind, when likening them to my comparatively very new and modern hometown.

Prague.

Prague.

The hours of daylight were also something that took a lot of time to get used to. There were days when 10pm snuck up on me rather rudely, and suddenly all the shops were closed but I hadn’t had dinner yet because it was still light outside – although on the flip side the early sunrises meant that I stayed up well past dawn on some of my nights of partying, though I wasn’t even out particularly late by my own standards. I was blessed with a freak run of amazing weather and beautiful sunshine during my tour of Europe, with hardly any rain or cold weather. But to be fair, I had planned my time in Europe to be in the summer, mainly because the idea of lugging all my winter clothes around on all those trains seemed a lot more of a hassle than it would be worth. Now that I’m back in Europe, though, I’ll have to brace myself for the sheer cold that will eventually be upon me – I have the summer to look forward to first, but winter is coming.

***

Berlin.

Berlin.

But perhaps one of the things that I found most enchanting about Europe was the amount of languages that I encountered. Almost everywhere in Europe it was rare to find a person who could only speak one language. Luckily for me many of those people had English as their second (or third) language, so I was able to get around and meet people with relative ease, but I would watch on with a mix of amusement and… awe, I guess, at the way they could seamlessly slip between foreign languages. It made me partly jealous, but I also found it rather inspiring too. Being bilingual or multilingual had always seemed like such a cool and useful skill to have, but the reality in Australia is that people who don’t speak English are few and far between, and there is no one common second language that serves to unite the people of the country under some cultural identity. While the cultures of each country try to stay well-defined and separate, Europe as a continent has become a melting pot for so many languages that multilingualism is just a common, everyday fact of life. Now that I am living in Germany I am trying my best to learn German, although it’s a lot harder than all these native speakers make it out to be. It’s challenging, but it was definitely one of the things that I took away from my time in Europe and have carried with me ever since.

Amsterdam.

Amsterdam.

London.

London.

Although if truth be told, once again it was the people I met during my time in Europe that made the journey so amazing and memorable. I really got into the Couchsurfing community, which is something that I could not recommend highly enough, particularly for anyone who is travelling alone. Sure, perhaps I didn’t see all of the “must see” sights in every city, but I did something that in my opinion was a lot more valuable – I made a lot of friends, locals who showed me sides of their hometowns that many tourists wouldn’t get the chance to see. My gratitude is endless to that long list of people, all of whom you’ve encountered in one way or another by reading my blogs. Experiences like that really make you appreciate that travelling is not about a particular place or destination – it’s about the journey you take to get there, and the things you see, the people you meet, the parties you dance through, the food you eat and the memories that you create along the way.

***

Dublin.

Dublin.

I could quite literally rave forever about how much fun Europe was and how part of me never wanted it to end, but I just don’t – and didn’t – have that kind of time. Because as that plane took off from Dublin airport, my teary-eyed self soon perked up because I had something just as big and diverse and exciting to look forward to: I was on my to the Land of the Free, the one and only United States of America.

Czech It Out

After saying goodbye to Itzel and alighting at Praha-hlavní nádraží, the main train station of Prague, I set out to navigate the public transport system of the capital of the Czech Republic. It was so close to 5 o’clock by the time I arrived in Prague that I didn’t even have to wait around at all – another perk of my detour was that I had done all my waiting either on the train, or in Bratislava. But first I did have to withdraw some crowns, the local currency, and then find somewhere to spend the large value notes in order to get change when I realised none of the metro ticket machines would accept them. There was also the strange requirement that I had to buy an extension for my luggage on top of my regular ticket, presumably because it would take up more room that could potentially fit another passenger. There was also a similar ticket for taking dogs on the metro, but in the end I had to forgo this extension and just buy a regular ticket simply because I didn’t have enough change to get the right one that I needed. “They rarely check for tickets on the metro in Prague,” Itzel had told me. “But they’re not really that expensive either, so you might as well buy it.” I did the best I could with what I had, and hoped that I could bluff my way out of any encountered trouble with excuses of being a tourist.

I followed the directions that my hosts had given me, though it was still very confusing. There were so many buses going on different routes and in different directions that all left from the same stop, and there was an uncomfortably lack of anyone who spoke English to help me out. But I persevered, and in the end I caught the right bus and followed the little blue dot on my iPhone GPS until I finally made it to my new home. Tomas and his boyfriend Matej’s house was right near the bus stop, and thankfully they were home by the time I finally arrived. Tomas had told me that I would be the first guest that the couple had hosted via Couchsurfing. I’m not sure if they were excited or nervous, but they warmly welcomed me into their home, a gorgeous little flat in a beautiful part of town. They had made me some dinner, too – I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was, but it was a homemade meat dish with some vegetables and it was a traditional Czech recipe and it was absolutely delicious – just what I had needed after a long day of travelling. I also noticed the distinct use of dill in the cooking, and I smiled to myself and remembered my time in Russia, and in my head I could still hear Marti saying “Isn’t this dill-icious?” I guess that’s how I knew I was back in Eastern Europe. We sat around their kitchen for a little while, chatting and getting to know each other, and then Tomas asked if I felt like going out and seeing some of the city. After a day of doing nothing but watch the Eastern European countryside pass me by, I was keen to get out and about, so I showered and got changed and the three of us headed back into the city centre.

***

Tomas was probably one of the best hosts I could have asked for during my stay in Prague – he was incredibly knowledgeable of his city, and was always pointing out the smallest and most random things, yet had some interesting story or weird fact about each and every thing. Some things were history lessons, while others were more modern facts, or even urban street smart tips. “Don’t come here at night, it’s a little dangerous,” he had said as we passed a park area on the bus. “There are drugs. Drug dealing, things like that.” Then he shrugged his shoulders with a smile. “Unless you are looking for that kind of thing.” Our first stop that evening was down by the river, where there was some kind of small outdoor performance on, with a band playing live music and a temporary bar set up selling some local Czech beer. Tomas bought us a few beers and we listened to the music and talked more about Prague, and my previous and future travels. Most of my European hosts seemed a lot more interested about Australia though – I’d been gone for so long that even I started to forget that I was actually a foreigner from half a world away. Out on the water, the river was filled with paddle boats, some of them in the shape of swans, slowly gliding along in the warm afternoon sunlight. The further north I travelled, the longer the daylight hours were becoming, and I loved it.

From there we walked back along the river, Tomas pointing out different architectural features of different buildings until we finally wandered up to the Old Town historical centre. Where the riverside pop-up bar had been a more underground affair, I could tell that we had wandered into the prime tourist zone of Prague as soon as we arrive. It was a beautiful area though, with the main square surrounded by small Gothic churches and cathedrals. I say ‘small’ in comparison to some of the larger churches I’d seen in Madrid and Rome, but they did manage to tower above the cobblestone pavements of Staroměstské náměstí, letting the small city hold its own and even stand out as one of the more beautiful places I had visited so far. The other major feature of the Old Town Square was the Old Town Hall, or more specifically, the astronomical clock on the bell tower. “It’s very popular with tourists,” Matej said, indicating the throng of people that was amassing at the base of the tower.
“Yes, every hour there is this… show… display…” At first it just seemed like Tomas couldn’t find the right word in English to explain what he was trying to say, but later I would realise he was just uncomfortable at using any of those words to even try and explain what we were about to witness.

St Nicholas Church, eerily illuminated by the lights of Old Town Square.

St Nicholas Church, eerily illuminated by the lights of Old Town Square.

The twin steeples of the Týn Church, built in 1365.

The twin steeples of the Týn Church, built in 1365.

The clock tower of the Old Town Hall as seen at night.

The clock tower of the Old Town Hall as seen at night.

The bell tower performance isn’t technically a tourist trap in that it doesn’t really cost any money. Yet still, I couldn’t help but feel a little ripped off after watching it. It’s an extremely famous and popular sight to witness, and the flocks of people surrounding the bell tower had definitely peaked my curiosity. Matej and Tomas must have been rolling their eyes as I stood on my tip-toes to peer over the crowd, but they knew it was something I would have to witness and judge for myself. When the hour rolled around, the chimes began to echo through the square, and little wooden doors opened up from the clock, and out came a small procession of figurines, which Tomas would later inform me were supposed to be a parade of the apostles. Above them, a skeleton emerged to ring a small bell, which clanged out over the crowd. Flashed from hundreds of cameras went off, and I waited eagerly to see what else would happen… The apostles did their loop and went back inside, and the skeleton eventually finished ringing his bell and retired back into the clock. There was a small cheer from the crowd in front of me.

“That… wait, that was it? Everyone stood around waiting for that?” Don’t get me wrong, it was a cute display, and more than most clocks manage to do to entertain a crowd. But I just couldn’t believe that that was all it took to attract such an audience. Tomas and Matej both chuckled, having clearly anticipated my reaction. “It’s a tourist thing,” they both said. “You had to see it at least once.” As fate would have it, I ended up in the same part of town the following afternoon and purely by chance, I happened to be there on the hour. During the daylight hours it was easier to take some clearer photos, although I can’t say they’re that much more exciting than being there to witness the show first hand… which isn’t saying much.

The Old Town Hall tower in the light of day, with the astronomical clock at the bottom.

The Old Town Hall tower in the light of day, with the astronomical clock at the bottom.

The crowds gathering around the astronomical clock to watch the rather anti-climactic performance.

The crowds gathering around the astronomical clock to watch the rather anti-climactic performance.

After that we wandered through some more of the town, exploring the old streets as I marvelled at the simple, intrinsic beauty of the place. Prague really did feel like a kingdom from a storybook, complete with a castle on the hill across the river, gazing down over the city. The three of us stopped by another one of the couples favourite bars on the way home, where we had a few more beers while Tomas told me more about Prague, while also interrogating me about my own journey and travels. They were both such sweet and lovely guys – I was starting to wonder when my luck at finding such nice hosts was going to run out. The two of them both had to work in the morning though, so we eventually stumbled back down the street to crash, and I would continue my exploring of the fairytale city on the morrow.

Swiss Secrets

After a long day of trains and transfers, from Ancona to Bologna, then Bologna to Milan and from Milan to Zürich, I finally arrived in one of the biggest cities in Switzerland, which in reality felt more like a large town than a small city. It was an exhausting day though – one of the most tiresome things about travelling is actually being in transit, and I was usually pretty shocked at how tired I would feel after simply sitting down on a train all day, although by now I was starting to get used to it with all the trains I had been catching around Europe. When I finally stepped off the train at Zürich, I was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host, Umer. Much like Ike had sent me the invitation to visit Ancona, Umer had seen my profile among the people who had listed that they were travelling in Europe, and had messaged me offering a place to stay with him should I ever find myself in his city. Such offers ended up shaping my trip quite a bit, since I had no set or definite plans myself, and I had had no success in finding hosts in any other Italian cities I might have been interested in seeing. I was also acutely aware of the approaching expiry date of my Eurail pass, so I had to make sure I had completed my circuit around Europe before that time arrived.

From the moment we met, Umer displayed a bright and bubbly personality. He helped me find an ATM to withdraw some money, since Switzerland doesn’t use euros like most of its neighbouring countries, but instead has held onto its original currency, the Swiss franc. As we made our way out of the train station, Umer reached into his satchel bag and brought out a bottle of light brown liquid. “Now, you have to try this. This is Rivella. It’s a Swiss soft drink, made right here in Switzerland, and it’s pretty popular. It’s one thing that you just have to try.” It looked like the colour of ginger beer, but it was made from milk whey, but I couldn’t really tell you exactly what it tasted like. It was fizzy, but it wasn’t entirely sweet either, and had a odd aftertaste. I could only manage half the bottle before I handed it back to Umer, but I still hadn’t made up my mind as to whether or not I actually liked Rivella.

Statue of Richard Kissling, a Swiss sculptor, outside the train station.

Statue of Richard Kissling, a Swiss sculptor, outside the train station.

We hopped onto one of the numerous trams that made up Zürich’s impressive public transport system. The system is comprised of trains, overground trams, buses, electric buses, a cable car and regular ferries across Lake Zürich, and the system was so comprehensive that I couldn’t imagine why anyone would bother driving anywhere in the city, when public transport could literally take you everywhere. As we travelled through the city centre, Umer pointed out various attractions that I should come back and visit and photograph later, when I wasn’t carrying my large bag. Umer wouldn’t be able to return with me, though. The following morning Umer had to fly out of Switzerland for a work trip. However, he’d agreed to let me stay at his place for one more night without him, since he lived with his parents who would be home for that time. I had had another host lined up for that next night, but they had cancelled on me last minute. Umer also gave me a very serious warning about tickets on public transport. “If you don’t have a valid ticket, its an on-the-spot 100 franc fine. If you don’t have it on you, police accompany you to an ATM so you can get it, and if  you can’t pay it then they put you in gaol.” He told me a couple of horror stories about previous Couchsurfers of his who had been hit with the whopping fine, and even though I had been happy to risk it several times while travelling on the U-Bahn in Berlin, I decided the risk probably wasn’t worth 100 francs, and definitely not worth spending time in a Swiss gaol. Luckily, Umer had brought along his dad’s monthly public transport pass for me to use, so I didn’t have to buy a ticket that afternoon.

The Swiss flag (although this one isn't in the traditional square shape).

The Swiss flag (although this one isn’t in the traditional square shape).

***

Umer was a fantastic guide, even from the confines of the train, teaching me random bits and pieces about the history of Switzerland, and other interesting facts. After I confessed to him that I originally thought that Zürich was the capital of Switzerland, not Bern, he told me that the city only serves as the capital for international purposes, and that most of the regions within the country are pretty autonomous. “Switzerland really is all about being neutral,” he elaborated. “None of the other cities really have sovereignty over any other – it’s all quite self-sufficient. It’s also one of the few countries that has a square shaped flag, and not a rectangle. The equal sides represent equality in all parts, and that idea of remaining neutral.” Who knew there could be so much history behind a flag? We also got off and had a wander through the downtown area, and passed the Limmat River, which flows out of Lake Zürich. “The water quality in the river is so high that it’s practically drinking quality. It’s mostly freshly melted ice from out of the Alps, so it’s so clean,” Umer said as we strolled by the water that was a bright shade of blue. “We don’t really have beaches around here, but in the summer time you can always find people swimming in the river and hanging out by the bars along the waters edge.” I made a note of it, since my good luck streak with the European summer weather was forecast to continue.

But our stops along the way were all really brief. “I’ll let you take your time with the sightseeing when you come back tomorrow,” Umer said. “For now, I want to show you one of my favourite things in Zürich that you probably wouldn’t see as an ordinary backpacker.” And so we eventually arrived that Thermalbad & Spa Zürich, a thermal bath and spa house whose design still held remnants of the ancient Irish-Roman bathhouse that had once stood in its place. “I love coming here”, Umer told me. “Just wait until you get inside.” We paid, entered, and got changed into our swimwear before entering the complex. The whole place felt like a Buddhist temple in that it was extremely calm and relaxing, but when you looked up the roof was old and arching domes made of ancient bricks and stones. We relaxed in the warm bubbling water, which was apparently drawn straight from natural springs that existed under Zürich, and was full of revitalising and rejuvenating minerals. It was actually the perfect relaxing experience after the long, exhausting day of train travel. There was also a mediation pool, where you could lie face up in a shallow body of water, and when you put your ears in the water you could hear soft, tranquil music playing. The whole place had quite a mystical feel about it.

However, the best was yet to come, Umer assured me. Once we were done on the lower levels, we got into a lift that took us up to the top floor. We stepped out of the lift and straight down into a staircase that led into the bubbling water, and rounded a corner and passed through a plastic curtain… which led us out onto a rooftop spa, with panoramic views of the city. The sun was slowing setting, hanging between the mountains, and the view was absolutely breathtaking. “You should see it in the winter when its snowing, it’s pretty amazing,” Umer said, and I could only imagine that the juxtaposition of temperatures would be rather incredible. So we sat up there on the rooftop spa as twilight sank over Zürich, sharing Couchsurfing stories and telling him all about my travels, much like I would have done with any new host, but in a quite a unique setting. Umer was right – it was a pretty special place, and once again I was grateful that Couchsurfing had been able to introduce me to some experiences that I would had never have had without it. Afterwards we headed back to Umer’s house, where his mother made us some dinner and then I promptly crashed, feeling incredibly relaxed after my time in the spa that had felt like something out of a dream.

I wasn't able to take one, so I stole this photo from the Internet - but I couldn't not include a picture of the amazing rooftop spa and the view that it offered.

I wasn’t able to take one, so I stole this photo from the Internet – but I couldn’t not include a picture of the amazing rooftop spa and the view that it offered. Image courtesy of: http://www.somestepsaway.com